Yankees, O's reverse fortune

September 12, 1996|By Claire Smith | Claire Smith,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

No one knows yet how far the strategies of summer will carry contending teams such as the Orioles or the New York Yankees this fall.

No one even knows if either American League East team will be around when the leaves turn brown, to quote a players' rhyme. But one thing is certain: No matter what their fortunes hold, the roads the Orioles and the Yankees have taken to meet their futures head on are as far apart as their recent fortunes.

The Yankees are in first place in the AL East by 2 1/2 games, a hair's width compared with a month ago. As the Yankees' lead has dwindled, down from 12 games on July 29, the self-doubts and not-so-small troubles have mounted. Those troubles have grown in direct proportion to the number of moves as the Yankees react to adversity like a Dr. Frankenstein frenetically trying to construct a contender out of a lot of different parts.

The Orioles, conversely, are soaring. Winners of 28 of 43, this is the team that has sheared 9 1/2 games off the Yankees' lead since Baltimore's low point at the end of July. And the Orioles have come back, in part, because they did not re-create themselves. Not even after the Yankees swept them almost from sight with a four-game sweep right after the All-Star break.

Rather, the Orioles stuck it out with veterans, a mandate if not from heaven, then certainly from on high. For the Orioles' owner, Peter Angelos, the flip side of George Steinbrenner, will be remembered not for the moves he engineered this season, but the moves not made.

Yes, Angelos pushed for the acquisition of Eddie Murray, and not just for another memorable moment a la Cal Ripken's chase of Lou Gehrig last season.

Murray did get to hit his 500th home run here, but he has also

added leadership to his old team.

Still, Angelos insisted that Murray not only be brought in, but that others stay. So, just when it seemed Bobby Bonilla was going, David Wells was going and thoughts of catching the Yankees were gone, Angelos persuaded Pat Gillick -- a general manager as celebrated as he was successful in Toronto -- to not tear the team down and start over at the July 31 trading deadline.

"I wasn't disputing his assessment from a baseball standpoint," Angelos said before last night game with the White Sox. "With baseball, I attach a different value to the opinions I have. Mine are more observations. Pat's come from expert assessments which demand to be considered foremost."

But those rules changed at the end of July, for reasons perhaps only an owner would understand. That was when, Angelos says, he told Gillick "the dismantling of the '96 Orioles is a policy decision more than a baseball decision and doing that would have said to Orioles fans that the team they had been watching was about to become a different team than what they had bargained for."

Gillick was obviously prepared to make the moves and Bonilla and Wells were linked to any number of fishing expeditions involving blue-chip prospects from other clubs.

To say the mood was forward-looking, to 1997, is an understatement. Witness what Orioles manager Davey Johnson said after the Yankee sweep in July left Baltimore 10 games out with 11 weeks to go: "We have a veteran club and there's no room for growth. My experience with veteran clubs is they don't get any better."

But Angelos, the owner who had underwritten a $48 million payroll, couldn't let his business sense be entirely overridden by such sentiments. He could not tell more than 28,000 season-ticket holders and more than 45,000 fans a game that the rebuilding had begun when the race wasn't over. He used phrases such as "refusing to break the faith," and "wanting to play the season through."

And because Angelos's vote counts more than any other, Wells is still here. And Wells helped keep the Orioles within 2 1/2 games of the Yankees by beating the White Sox, 5-1, Tuesday night.

Bonilla's still here, too. And the player who admitted needing to hear what Angelos's actions stated, has batted .357 with seven home runs and 12 RBIs in his last 12 games. "That's the man who pays the bills, so, sure, it helped," he said.

It didn't hurt the team, either. "I believe everybody in this room believed in each other," Bonilla said.

The right fielder also contends that the team was cohesive and just needed more stable pitching, which it has received. In other words, it needed time, which Angelos gave them.

"Is it a gamble, giving people you know the opportunity, or is it a gamble getting people during the season, people you don't know what they can do?" Bonilla asked.

The Yankees and Orioles won't know the answer to that question until October. And only one will end up on the winning side of the argument.

Pub Date: 9/12/96

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